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The Mobile Register
By STEVE JOYNT, Assistant City Editor
WETUMPKA, Ala. — District Attorney Randall Houston said he gladly would have put Melissa Wright on trial for attempted murder and paraded all of his evidence, photographs and expert witnesses past the jury, except for one thing.
“All it takes is one person to say she was crazy to hang up the jury. There are no sure things,” he said. “We never know what’s going to happen.”
So, he accepted a guilty plea to the attempted murder charge for a 25-year sentence instead of asking for the maximum of life in prison.
In June 2002, Wright, then 26, stuck her 14-month-old daughter in a gas oven set on “broil.” The girl was rescued by her father, Robert Lynn Smith, just moments later, but she had suffered third-degree burns over more than 30 percent of her body.
Police charged Wright after she told them she put her baby in the hot oven of their meager trailer home “because voices in my head were telling me to.” Those voices also told her “that I needed to trust Jesus.” It hardly sounds like someone who’s in her right mind.
“It’s easy to say that,” said Houston, who is district attorney for the 19th Judicial Circuit, including Elmore County, where the crime occurred. “Nobody wants to believe that a mother would put a baby in the oven. We don’t believe she was crazy, we believe she was just mean. We believe she wanted attention. She was jealous of the attention that Robert gave the baby.”
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Jordan, who started on the case the night it happened, said, “She’s as sane as we are.”
Wright’s attorney, who was appointed to defend her, said he firmly believes the opposite, that Wright was, and probably still is, suffering from severe mental problems.
“Here was a woman of very limited means financially and very limited educational background,” Kendrick James said. “She could not afford top-drawer mental health professionals, and she largely suffered through this on her own.”
He requested that Wright be examined by state psychologists. They declared her to be competent to stand trial — able to assist in her own defense — as well as sane at the time of the incident, meaning she knew right from wrong.
At trial, James said, he would have attacked the assessment of Wright’s sanity at the time she put the baby in the oven. But, he said, he was unwilling to take the case before a jury, despite the level of Wright’s mental illness.
“All the prosecution would have to do is show their slides of all of the burns on that little girl,” James said. “From there, it would have been difficult to convince them of anything other than Melissa should get the maximum sentence.
“Folks that had heard about this case felt very strongly about it and had opinions about what should happen to her.”
Jordan recalled hearing a story about Wright that came out of the county jail after she had been held there awhile.
“She was put in an isolation cell, because the other inmates would’ve killed her,” Jordan said. “It’s not air-conditioned in there, and it’s even worse in an isolation cell. Melissa made friends with a trustee or something like that and got the trustee to go and ask if she could get more time outside. When the trustee told an officer that Melissa was awful hot back there, the officer said, ‘Ask her if it’s as hot as that oven she put her baby in.'”
Just like all incoming state prisoners, Wright will undergo a psychiatric evaluation when she enters the system, corrections officials said. But since there was no finding of insanity during the course of her case and no diagnosis of mental disease before her arrest, it’s anyone’s guess if she will receive psychological treatment or medication while in prison.
Wright remains in the Elmore County Jail in Wetumpka, 10 miles north of Montgomery, awaiting transfer to Alabama’s only prison for women — Tutwiler — which happens to sit across the street.
Something wasn’t right:
Some who knew Wright said she changed a few months before police investigators and television cameras descended on Coosada, Ala., and the small trailer park at the end of a gravel road named Harms Way. They described her swinging from manic states to fits of anger to being semi-catatonic. After Wright lost her last waitressing job, “she really started going downhill,” neighbor Toni Hanson told investigators, according to a written report. “Robert started taking Melissa with him everywhere he went. Melissa started to become more withdrawn.”
Another neighbor, Denise Dunlap, said she first realized that something was wrong when Wright came knocking on the Dunlaps’ door. “She asked me, ‘Is your name April?’ She was really strange looking, just the look on her face. I told her, ‘Melissa, you know it’s not. You’ve known me almost a year now. You know who I am.’ She just said, ‘Oh, OK,’ and then she started to tell me how the trailer around the corner was her granddaddy’s. It wasn’t, of course.”
Dunlap knew her neighbors were going through lean times. Neither Wright nor Smith had a job, and the bills were piling up. Dunlap said she often brought food to the family. She also looked after the baby and her older half-sister sometimes and bathed the baby more than once. Wright seemed to be caring less and less about the kids and her own appearance, according to Dunlap.
One evening, Dunlap said, the oldest girl came out screaming and in one breath told Dunlap what had just happened: Her mother was trying to kill her, and had asked Smith to tie her up. Instead Smith had held Wright back, and the girl ran out of the trailer to find help.
Earlier in the day, the girl told Dunlap, her mother had tried to jump out of the car while it was moving. Dunlap said she calmed the girl down then went over to Lot 10 to see for herself what was going on. “Melissa was sitting in a chair. She would look up at me, but there was nobody in there, you know what I mean? I’d ask her a question, and it would take her awhile just to focus on you. I asked her, ‘Did you eat today?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know.’ I never saw her snap out of it that night.”
Smith told Dunlap he didn’t know what to do about Wright. He had taken her to a couple of doctors recently, and they gave her some medications.
“When she wasn’t sick, she was a good mom, a real good mom,” Smith said recently. “But she was getting worse. Several times, I found her out in the yard talking about the world coming to an end. That was a big thing with her, the world coming to an end.”
When police searched the trailer on the night of June 10, 2002, just hours after the crime, they found hydroxyzine pamoate, which is used to treat anxiety; samples of Topamax, which is used largely to prevent seizures; and Wellbutrin, an antidepressant.
Dunlap, who described herself as a devout Christian, sometimes went to Wright’s for Bible study. Despite the religious pictures all over the kitchen, “she don’t have a lot of knowledge in the area of religion,” Dunlap said. “I’ve never known them to go to church.”
One night, in a particularly hyperactive state, Wright started talking about how she had everything all figured out, Dunlap said. Wright pointed to a doll hanging on the wall and said it used to belong to her grandmother. Dunlap said she tried to talk some sense into Wright, pointing out that Smith recently had bought the doll at a flea market or yard sale. Wright said she knew that, but somehow she also knew the doll had been her grandmother’s.
“Then she started saying, ‘I’ve got it all figured out. Robert is the devil. He is, I’m sure of it.’ I took her by the arms, and I shook her a little, and I said, ‘Melissa, that’s not true, stop saying that.’ I remember thinking, ‘Man, she is losing her mind.'”
When Dunlap learned that Wright told investigators a week or two later that she believed Smith was Jesus, Dunlap said the whole thing must have somehow made sense in Wright’s head.
“I have a great aunt who’s schizophrenic,” Dunlap said, “but what I saw of Melissa surpassed anything I’ve ever seen.”
Wright’s attorney said he thinks his client may have suffered from postpartum psychosis, a condition that, left untreated, can lead mothers to kill their own children.
Shoshana Bennett, president-elect of Postpartum Support International and co-author of the book “Beyond the Blues: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression,” said that while she can’t diagnose Wright from the small amount of information she has been told about the case, she’s quite sure that Wright is and was psychotic.
“She has a history of psychosis in her immediate family, which puts her at very high risk, especially during and immediately after pregnancy,” Bennett said from her northern California office. “And just from this amount of information, I can say that she was showing most or all of the classic signs of psychosis.”
Psychosis is a broad category of serious mental disease or defect that includes conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disease. Most psychoses are marked by lack of contact with reality, dementia and hallucinations.
Those classic signs exhibited by Wright, according to Bennett, include:
Flat affect — dead eyes and a feeling by others that the person is “not there”
Agitations — huge mood swings that can be just seconds apart
Bennett described Wright’s condition as treatable with the right medication, but the antidepressants she received may not have been what she needed.
“Wellbutrin, in fact, can make things worse,” said Bennett, who holds a doctorate in clinical counseling and a master’s degree in psychology. “She needed a powerful antipsychotic.”
Again, she couldn’t be sure without more information, but Bennett said it was highly likely that Wright had been psychotic for years and either hid the symptoms or no one around her recognized them. Untreated, her condition finally got to the point where Wright no longer had control over it, Bennett said.
American criminal law, Bennett argued, is woefully behind other parts of the world when it comes to prosecuting someone suffering from a powerful psychosis. The did-they-know-right-from-wrong standard is insufficient, she said.
“Look at it this way: A child abuser doesn’t hug a kid before doing something horrible,” Bennett said. “And usually they confess to it right away. Melissa woke her husband up and told him the baby was in the oven. Andrea Yates called 911 to report what she had done. They do not try to avoid prosecution.”
Yates, of Houston, drowned her five children in the bathtub of her suburban home in June 2001. She had been previously diagnosed with schizophrenia and postpartum psychosis. She later told investigators that she had to kill her children because Satan told her to. She was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Bennett said she was sorry to hear that Wright’s case did not go to trial, largely because she now has no appeals available to her.
“There are people who will testify about the specifics of these postpartum conditions,” she said. “The problem is, when a mother kills a child or tries to, everyone instantly wants to hang her.”
Robert Smith said recently that he knows Wright has a serious mental condition, and he’s concerned that she will not get treatment.
“I do still care about her,” he said. “I hate what she done, but I don’t hate her. What she needs is help, and I’m sure they’re not even dealing with it. I talked to her shortly after they locked her up, and she didn’t even know what she’d done. She thought maybe she’d put both of her girls in the oven.”
Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, charged with protecting the state’s abused and neglected children, periodically finds itself publicly vilified for failing to prevent yet another horrific case of an adult harming a child.
So many times, it seems, the agency wasn’t involved in a situation that obviously cried out for intervention or, even worse, a caseworker was called in, made contact with the family and still was unable to prevent whatever event made headlines.
In the case of Melissa Wright and her daughters, the state agency could not have been much closer to the troubled family yet still unable to prevent the baby from being hurt. A DHR caseworker, after receiving a call from a neighbor, visited the trailer on Harms Way about a week before the baby was burned, then made a return visit one hour before Wright opened the oven door.
But this time, no one has stepped forward to point a finger of blame at the agency.
“We’ve had our fights with DHR, but in this case, they really tried to do the right thing,” District Attorney Houston said. “There’s no way that anyone could’ve foreseen this. DHR could not have done anything to prevent this. They were afraid she was going to neglect the children, not hurt them.”
DHR Commissioner Bill Fuller did not respond to interview requests for this story, but he did issue a brief statement shortly after the media learned of his agency’s role in this case.
“I commend the staff of the Elmore County Department of Human Resources, who handled this case in a very profes sional manner,” the statement said. “Based on my personal inquiries, I am confident that all reasonable measures were taken to protect this child.”
DHR also would not grant permission for the specific caseworker, identified in court documents as Danny Luster, to give interviews.
According to Coosada police Sgt. Morris Rogers, Luster first went out to the trailer on June 5, 2002. There he found Wright “spaced out” and the two girls on their own; Rogers was called out to assist him.
“When I arrived, she was very, very addled, just sort of spaced,” Rogers recalled about Wright. “She wasn’t too coherent at all.”
Luster told the officer that Wright was not even able to give him her name or date of birth.
“Shortly after I arrived, her husband, Robert, arrived,” Rogers said. “She and her husband said she was on some type of medication.
“His demeanor was that it was just a normal everyday thing with her,” Rogers said about Smith’s reaction.
“He just asked us, ‘What’s the problem?’ He didn’t seem upset that we were there. If anything, he was upset with her. He said that she should not take that drug, because it made her like that. He said he was out trying to make a living, and she was back here like this.”
Luster was afraid that Wright had overdosed on something, so he had her taken to the hospital, where her stomach was pumped. According to a report filed by Luster, there were no illicit drugs or overdose levels of prescription medications found.
But considering Wright’s condition, Luster issued what’s known as a DHR safety order, in which he made it clear in writing that Wright was not to be left alone with the children and that he would be dropping by the trailer on unannounced visits.
He did just that on the afternoon of June 10, where he found Smith in the trailer with Wright and the girls, according to court records. Luster determined Wright and the children to be in good health and left shortly after. An hour or so later, Wright put her youngest daughter into the oven.
“I know Danny has questioned many times whether he had done the right thing,” Houston said. “But I believe there’s nothing else he could’ve done.”
Neighbor Denise Dunlap agreed: “I wouldn’t think they could or would do any more than they did just by what they saw. They made an OK decision, because usually children are better off with their parents than anywhere else.
“If it were me, I’d like to think that DHR would not believe the person who called in and tear my family apart just on somebody else’s word.”
Melissa Wright’s oldest daughter is now 9 years old and lives with her father, Timothy Sims, in Selma. He has remarried since splitting up with Wright in 1997, and he and his wife have three other children. Having been the only known witness to her mother’s terrible act, the girl started going to regular counseling almost immediately, Sims said.
“The first year was kind of rough,” he said. “But recently, she came to me and said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to go to counseling anymore,’ and I told her she didn’t have to go.
“She’s started talking like she’s a lot more grown than a 9-year-old.”
After nine months of unannounced home checks by DHR and three different hearings, Sims now has gained permanent custody of his daughter.
The girl misses her little half sister, Sims said, and has seen her only once since that night.
Robert Smith said he thought it was a shame that the two girls are apart but that it was up to Sims what the older girl should do.
From the start, Smith spent a lot of time with the baby in the hospital, and he had a few problems waiting for him back in Coosada.
“Right after the whole thing happened, I said, ‘Robert, you’ve got to find someplace else to live. I just can’t have all of this going on here,'” said Charles Mercer, owner of the trailer park. “He told me, ‘I’m spending all my time in Birmingham with the baby right now,’ and I felt kind of sorry for him, so I told him I’d wait a little.”
Within a couple of months though, Mercer filed an eviction notice, and the Elmore County sheriff had it served on Wright in the jail, since she was the actual owner of the trailer.
“He was trouble long before this happened,” Mercer said about Smith, “and I don’t need the rent money that bad.”
Smith waited until the last possible day, Mercer said, when a truck showed up to haul the trailer away.
Smith said before the trailer got where it was going, the frame got twisted. “I pretty much lost money on that whole thing,” he said.
At the same time, Coosada’s police chief had Robert Smith on his radar.
“I worked real hard to find out where and how Robert might be involved,” in harming the baby, Chief Leon Smith said. “I strongly felt like he knew or did something wrong.”
At first, the chief said, Robert Smith thought Leon Smith — no relation — was “his buddy.”
“Then he realized different and thought I had it in for him,” the chief said. “It got to where he would try to go around me any way he could. He called the sheriff and complained about me, claimed I was harassing him.”
The chief paused and smiled, making it clear that Robert Smith might’ve had a point.
“I had stopped him once and wrote him some citations — no license, no insurance — and arrested him on an outstanding warrant from Autauga County.”
That warrant for check fraud in Elmore’s neighboring county has led to a failure-to-pay warrant. Later charges of auto theft and harassment both yielded bench warrants, one alleging failure to pay, the other failure to appear in court.
As for the little daughter in the oven, her adoptive mother, Rhonda Zaffina, said she’s not sure what’s next.
“The doctors really haven’t told us, and I’m not sure I want to know right now,” said Zaffina, who is also Robert Smith’s sister. “I just want to get through this step and let her heal some more.”
Surely, Zaffina said, there will be more than the six or so surgeries she’s had so far, including cosmetic surgery on the scars, which Medicaid won’t cover. The Shriners organization recently let the family know that it will take care of the cosmetic surgery when the time comes.
“There’s a lot of people out there who care,” Zaffina said, “and I want them to know how much their help, their prayers and their concern have meant to this family.”
Of course, it’s the emotional scars that worry Zaffina the most, mostly because she can’t see them yet.
“She just seems so normal,” Zaffina said. “I know the day is going to come that she’s going to need counseling. In fact, I’ll probably need counseling be fore she does, just because I have so many questions.
“I think it’s important, though, that she knows what happened. I’ve saved all of the news clippings I could, and I’ll give them to her one day. This is a big part of who she is.”